Going Green: Microfibers contributing to plastic pollution in global waterways

Global Business

Governments around the world are banning items like plastic straws, cups and bags but did you know that a major source of plastic pollution is the clothing we wear? CGTN’s Karina Huber reports.

Columbia University researcher Beizhan Yan spent three years working on a study looking at the impact of tiny pieces of plastic known as microplastics on the water and marine life in rivers near New York City.

What he found is microplastics act like a magnet for toxic materials.

“In the samples we collected – we found PH – which are called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons – which is potent carcinogens and mutagens. We also found pharmaceuticals was on the surface of the microplastics,” said Yan, who works at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

Those microplastics covered in toxins are then consumed by fish and other marine life which can lead to various health issues.

“You can affect the gill of the fish. And also another thing is when the fish eat those micro plastics they probably have some difficulty to expel them out. So they can stick inside the intestine of the fish for a longer time,” said Yan.

Plastic pollution is a global problem. A large source of that pollution comes from our clothing. Roughly 60 percent of what we wear is made of synthetic fabrics like polyester, lycra and nylon, which are all made of plastic.

When washed, those garments shed hundreds of thousands of plastic microfibers so small it’s hard for water filters to catch them. Many end up in our waterways consumed by marine life.

Scientists may be getting a clearer picture of the impact of microplastics on marine life but there is very little data on how this impacts humans that eat the fish that consume these microplastics.

Scientists are concerned. Some environmental groups are calling on the apparel industry to come up with solutions.

Clothing company Patagonia recently announced it’s looking into making a textile that doesn’t shed as much. It’s also encouraging consumers to buy and wash less.

But Preethi Gopinath, Director of the Textile MFA Program at Parsons School of Design says it will be a while before the industry as a whole takes action.

“They should take it seriously but usually companies tend to take things really seriously when it effects their bottom line somewhere,” said Gopinath.

Gopinath says many consumers like synthetics and for good reason.

“We are still on that high of – woohoo – we have a fabric that doesn’t cost as much as silk – behaves quite like silk and we’re still marketing to that market that’s looking for the affordability factor,” she said.

Experts say keeping microfibers out of our water will require change from consumers, the apparel industry and water filtration systems – a multi-pronged effort.

Dianna Cohen talks about plastic waste and recycling

CGTN’s Rachelle Akuffo spoke to Dianna Cohen, co-founder and CEO of Plastic Pollution Coalition about global plastic pollution and how the world is trying to fight it.